Raptors’ determination to sign Davis a tale worth telling


Terence Davis II is a member of the Toronto Raptors today largely based off one stunningly good opening day at the Las Vegas summer league and a quick thinking, faster reacting, even more decisive Raptors scouting staff.

The story has been told before, but it’s worth repeating in these times lacking in live sporting events if for no other reason than it really is one of those knock-it-out-of-the-park draft picks for the Raptors who have had quite a few these past few seasons.

It starts with the Raptors director of player personnel and assistant GM Dan Tolzman seated at the baseline of the Cox Pavilion court during Vegas Summer League play.

On the court are the summer league teams of the Denver Nuggets and the Orlando Magic.

On one side of Tolzman is Luke Winn, the Raptors director of Prospect Strategy. On the other is Keith Boyarsky, the Raptors’ Vice President, Basketball Strategy & Research. At the opposite end of the court are Patrick Engelbrecht, Raptors Director, Global Scouting & International Affairs and Curtis Crawford Raptors’ Director, Player Personnel. In the stands around mid-court is Isaac Lax, Raptors Manager, Basketball Operations & Salary Cap Management.

With it being still early July, Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster were back in Toronto dealing with free agency and the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

But that’s still six members of the Raptors front office in the building and they were all there to see Davis. It didn’t even get to halftime before the Raptors were plotting their next move.

“Early in the (game) our little group chat just lit up,” Tolzman said of the six men on the scene. “‘Everyone is seeing this right? What he’s doing? I mean we all agree he’s good enough right?”

Good enough in that context was good enough to sign that day and that was Tolzman’s intention. But first, like every good scout he wanted to double, triple and quadruple check that everything they knew about this 22-year-old Ole Miss product was in fact legit.

Tolzman recalls first seeing Davis as a freshman at the 2016 Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. Davis was coming off the bench and not playing much but he left an impression because of his athleticism and physicality.

“He was so raw,” Tolzman said. “He looked like football player playing basketball. He didn’t have the ball skills. He had so much raw athleticism and toughness about him though. I remember coming away from that thinking, ‘he’s young. He’s pretty wild but he has something to him.’ Never in a million years would I have thought he would become this but at the same time he was noteworthy enough to remember him coming back from a tournament that had Dennis Smith and Justin Patton and some big time players.”

A number of the Raptors staff saw him after that and over the next three seasons and he always got noticed but not to the extent that anyone came back saying ‘We have to get another look at this guy.’

“Being in the SEC he was kind of hiding in plain sight,” Tolzman said. “That’s a league of athletes and arguably the most talented conference top to bottom every year. So we saw a lot of him and you would come away thinking, man that guy is pretty good.”

The Raptors didn’t start to get really excited until his draft year and only after Davis kind of popped at the NBA Combine in Chicago.

“With Terence we were talking to him and in contact with his reps early in the process,” Tolzman said. “ I think it made more sense early on and we had the 59th pick and that seemed like maybe we would be in the mix but as his combine performance and all that stuff started going on his stock rose so much to where it seemed like we were no longer in the mix and they were telling us they had to prioritize other teams. So they went their way and did the pre-draft their way. We still liked him but we had ranked ahead of our pick and didn’t think he would be there at all.”

So Davis never did wind up doing a pre-draft workout for the Raptors who just assumed he would get drafted before they got a chance.

Davis changed all that when after getting passed over in the first round he began advising teams not to bother selecting him. As a second-round pick the best a player normally gets is a two-way contract which means little time with the parent club and plenty of time in the G-League. The pay is obviously quite a bit less as well.

Following in the footsteps of soon-to-be teammate Fred VanVleet, Davis chose to bet on himself which brings us back to that July 7 summer league game. Having accepted a spot with Denver’s summer league team, Davis was there to show the NBA he was ready to play now and see if he could tempt a team into parting with some guaranteed money.

Though he was playing for Denver he was technically a free agent trying out for all 30 teams.

The Raptors realized this and perhaps sooner than others in the league realized a quick strike was the best approach.

Davis did his part with a 22-point game including going 5-of-7 from behind the arc with five rebounds, a steal, a block and just two turnovers. To say he dominated the game would be an understatement. He certainly had the attention of every Raptors employee at the game.

By halftime Winn had stepped out of the gym to make some calls to some coaches at Ole Miss just to re-affirm what the Raptors thought they knew.

Tolzman and the rest were exchanging texts with Ujiri and Webster bringing them into the loop.

“It started to snowball when all of us, from various angles of that gym all come together and reached the same conclusion: What he is doing is absolutely transferable to the NBA,” Tolzman said.

Tolzman recalls thinking Davis was already a better fit for the Raptors needs than a handful of free agents they had been scouting to fill out the roster. “We were in conversation with two guards at the time as well with our mid-level exception,” Tolzman said. “We just felt we would have a nice mix of some young guys and rookies.”

The only question was how much competition would they have to sign Davis.

As it turns out the Raptors’ decisiveness won the day.

“(His representatives) were telling us teams were starting to reach out but we were the first to have a legitimate conversation,” Tolzman said. “My approach was ‘OK, what does it take to get this done so no other teams get the opportunity to raise the price?

“They told us no team had yet discussed a fully guaranteed first year and for an undrafted rookie that takes some (nerve) to put that out there because you never know. Especially after one half of summer league which was essentially when we started going down that path.”

The decision was made then and there to offer a two-year minimum salary contract with the first year guaranteed.

The next time Davis took the court he was playing with the Raptors’ summer league team.

While the Raptors have until July 1 (that number is likely to be moved back based on the interruption of the season and assuming it resumes at some point) to walk away from the second year there is no chance of that happening.

In his rookie year Davis has been everything the Raptors could have hoped for. He is fearless. He is a willing student ready to take whatever direction coaches and teammates alike suggest. He is also very popular because of this.

Like any rookie, there have been moments where he has been challenged, but he has bounced back from every setback he has endured and come out better because of it.

It’s exactly what Tolzman and the scouting staff saw in him going all the way back to his early days at Ole Miss.

“That was the No. 1 thing we liked about him,” Tolzman said. “Every time the competition level was raised he always seemed to fit in and then do a little bit more to stand out. It happened at every single stop. He never looked like he was overwhelmed. When we got to summer league and then we see him doing what he did there and it’s like ‘OK this guy is for sure good enough.’”

There hasn’t been a moment’s regret since they signed the deal other than to wish they had gone a few years longer.

Travelling Tolzman also had to self-quarantine

Turns out it wasn’t just the Raptors in Utah a week ago Monday that required a voluntary self-isolation period thanks to the positive test for the covid-19 virus by Jazz centre Rudy Gobert.

Dan Tolzman, the Raptors assistant GM and director of player personnel wasn’t in Utah on Monday but over the previous weekend he was in Boston and actually stayed at the same hotel as the Utah Jazz who were there taking on the Celtics.

Tolzman took in the game and afterwards had a friendly post-game beverage with one of the many national writers that cover the NBA.

A few days later he got a text from that same writer informing him that the writer had a close quarters one-on-one interview with Gobert following the game about 10 minutes before he joined Tolzman for that beverage.

“When I relayed that info to our doctors they said ‘Yeah, we should maybe get you tested to be safe.’ “ Tolzman said.

His test, as every member of the Raptors travelling party in Utah did, came back negative, but as a precautionary measure, Tolzman, like thousands and thousands throughout Canada is home for a 14-day stay … just to be safe.